Mike Shanahan put it best for the Denver Broncos before the season ever began.
"There's only one thing that matters, and that's winning championships," the Broncos' third-year coach said. "Everything else is secondary."
If one NFL team has the "everything else" part mastered, it is the Broncos.
Regular-season games? The Broncos have won 19 of their last 23 over the past 1 1/2 seasons. Their 13-3 record tied Green Bay for the NFL's best last season. Their 6-1 start ties San Francisco for tops in the league this year.
Playoff appearances? Since 1983, the Broncos have made eight.
Super Bowls? Since 1986, the Broncos have played in three.
Championships? Well, there are those eight AFC West titles the Broncos have won since 1977.
But that obviously isn't what Shanahan had in mind.
He and his players entered this season with the ultra-bitter taste and non-stop nightmares from last January's AFC divisional playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Mile High Stadium. In slightly more than three hours, the Broncos undid all that they had accomplished in four months.
"I don't know if it's humbled us," said Shanahan, whose team takes on the Buffalo Bills Sunday at Rich Stadium. "But when presented with the same opportunity, we'll probably look at it a little differently."
Some observers around the NFL are skeptical. They can't help but watch the Broncos' success through the first half of their schedule and wonder whether they are again headed down the path of regular-season glory followed by postseason heartbreak.
Last December, after Denver eliminated Oakland from playoff contention, Raiders safety Lorenzo Lynch "guaranteed" the Broncos would lose in the playoffs, saying, "They're not as good as everybody thinks. They're just lucky."
A week ago, just before the Broncos and Raiders met in Oakland, Lynch balked at making another playoff prediction for Denver.
"But I do know that they have a glass chin," he said. "They're good, but they still have weaknesses."
The Raiders proceeded to expose one of those weaknesses last Sunday when Napoleon Kaufman ran for a club-record 227 yards to key Oakland's 28-25 victory. Oakland's massive offensive line made it look almost too easy in tearing open huge holes in Denver's smallish defensive front. Kaufman also revealed the Broncos' overall lack of defensive speed when he ran away from the secondary on an 83-yard touchdown run and a 57-yard gain.
But this was hardly a one-game anomaly. For the season, the Broncos have allowed an NFL-worst 5.7 yards per rush.
Asked how he thought his team would respond to the loss, Shanahan said, "We'll find out. Anytime someone goes through a loss, you check your card and find out how your team responds."
But for Shanahan, the Broncos' response Sunday -- and for the rest of their remaining nine games, for that matter -- won't mean a thing if they fail to reach the Super Bowl. He has firmly established himself as a top-notch offensive strategist and quarterback mentor, but he won't be regarded as a top-notch head coach until his team carries its regular-season success beyond Christmas.
With 37-year-old quarterback John Elway and other key players who are thirtysomething, time is running out on the Broncos' Super Bowl quest. If they don't do it this season, it might be a while before they get another chance.
"All my friends, they're like, 'Wouldn't it be great to win one for John?' " said strong safety Tyrone Braxton, an 11th-year veteran who turns 33 in December. "And I'm like, 'John? What about me? I want to win one, too. . . . I've been playing long enough.' "
There are those in Denver who think the Raider game was the best thing that could have happened to the Broncos' postseason aspirations. The logic is that a loss this late in the season will be much more sobering than last year's first setback, which, coming in Week Four against Kansas City, was easily overshadowed by the nine straight wins that followed. The two losses in the final three weeks of last season were dismissed as meaningless because the Broncos had already secured the division crown and home-field advantage through the playoffs.
Perhaps, the theory goes, they were feeling a bit too full of themselves when they faced the younger, hungrier Jaguars.
"My second year in San Francisco (1989), we lost two games and they were eye-openers for us," Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski said. "And sometimes you need that. Sometimes you need to be reminded that in this league, any team can beat any other team."
"Last year was a tough situation with us, clinching as early as we did," Elway said. "Then we ran into a buzz saw. When you get into the playoffs, if you're the best team, you've got to play that way."
The Oakland game notwithstanding, the Broncos have, indeed, performed like the best team in the AFC -- if not the NFL -- through most of the first half of the season.
In their first six games, they scored an average of 31.6 points per game while allowing 14.2. That average margin of victory was well above the 15.4 Green Bay had last year when the Packers became the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to lead the league in both most points scored and fewest allowed.
The Broncos have one of the NFL's most talented and dangerous running backs in Terrell Davis. And they still have Elway, although he is showing signs of losing the cannon-like authority of his throws as well as some of his trademark scrambling ability.
Three weeks ago, in the Broncos' showdown Monday night game with New England, Elway was struggling. He threw as many first-half interceptions (two) as he had during his previous five games. But Davis picked up the slack in a huge way by rushing for 171 yards and two touchdowns to lead Denver to a 34-13 victory.
Afterward, there was all sorts of gushing about the 6-0 Broncos. There was even giddy talk that, with less-than-overwhelming performances from the Packers and other NFC heavyweights, Denver gave the AFC its best chance to finally end the NFC's Super Bowl dominance.
Of course, the Broncos have to make it to the playoffs first. Then they have to continue winning.
"You've got to make it to the next level," Elway said. "And we've got too much experience on this team not to take it to that level."
Among the Bills players who will be inactive Sunday are defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, fullback Tim Tindale, linebacker John Holecek and defensive back Ray Jackson.